Life’s most meaningful journeys are less about where you’re travelling to, but why, with whom – and sometimes, for whom. Before I tell the incredible story that explains why eight intrepid travellers came to Africa on a journey of the heart, I need to tell you about an incomparable woman named Sharyn Mandel so that you understand, a little, the person behind our shared purpose. This video from our charitable partner imagine1day tells a piece of the tale, but no story is complete without a prologue.
The first time I met the woman who would become one of my closest friends and personal hero, every fibre of my being was racked with nerves. This was Gabe’s mother. This was Gabe’s Jewish mother. This was Gabe’s Jewish, former teacher mother. As a natural introvert, authority figures make me twitchy – and she initially made me twitchier than most.
She had a way of looking at you – with her patented raised-eyebrows, straight-mouthed, sideways glance – that not only made you feel like a guilty child, but also instantly cut through all the bullshit. The first time she turned that laser stare on me, I felt my insides liquefy. But she also cracked through my polite, try-to-be-perfect-for-my-boyfriend’s-mother façade. She demanded to see the real me with that look. And in that moment, I found a kindred spirit, a friend for life, a second mother and a trusted mentor.
That was Sharyn at her core – authentic, no filter, suffer-no-fools real. She continually shocked me with her always candid, often crass, hold-nothing-back way of speaking. She was a rare mix of earth mother and spitfire. From the very start, I was awestruck – and more than a little in love. Once, when Gabe and I picked her up to take her to brunch, we were surprised to notice she’d put bright pink streaks in her hair. All I could think was: Woman, you seriously rock. As long as I’ve known her, the question “Can I please be you when I grow up?” has run on a loop in my mind. Still does today.
She was a teacher, heart and soul. In our lifetime, some of us are lucky enough to encounter a teacher who goes beyond the educational side of teaching to teach us about life. That was the kind of teacher Sharyn was. To her, it was more than a profession, more than a post-retirement hobby. It was a calling, and her life’s purpose. Teaching was Sharyn’s way of contributing to the world, and her greatest legacy.
Sharyn Mandel was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer on July 17, 2013, and though she only lived a short seven weeks following that, she stoically continued with her life’s purpose, tutoring her students from her bedside. Sometimes cancer – the ugly enormity of it, and the pain it brings – snuffs out the light in a person. It eats away at who they are as it ravages the body. Not so with Sharyn. She was true to herself, to the essence of who she was, until the very end – no apologies. Now that is strength. That is spirit. That is authenticity. She was the strongest and bravest woman I’ve ever known – someone who smiled, joked and laughed through the pain, even when it cost her.
Still, it was only after her death that we were to learn the true depth of her character and spirit.
She had always talked about her dream to build a school in a developing country, where girls in particular would benefit from education. Until reading her will, we didn’t know that she fully intended to have us help make her dream a reality. The details of how or exactly where the school would be built were left up to her sons, so we began exploring options, sifting through what felt like countless charitable organizations to find one that understood Sharyn and her mission.
Enter imagine1day. We shortlisted three organizations to provide us with proposals, and from the start, Executive Director Sapna Dayal and her team understood Sharyn’s story and actively listened to help us develop a highly personalized plan that would carry out Sharyn’s final wish. She was very clear about two things – that the school be in an area where the educational opportunities would benefit girls and that literacy be a focus of the curriculum. imagine1day chose Gobele, a village of just under 2,000 people, located in the district of Meda Welabu in southern Ethiopia. We learned that girls’ education in the district is limited by economic factors, distance, and traditional gender roles.
Barely a year after engaging imagine1day, we found ourselves in Ethiopia, where the adventures I’ve documented on this blog made us a tribe, a family. Our visit to the school that has become Sharyn’s namesake changed us irrevocably, in ways that we are still exploring – collectively and individually.
We began our two-day journey from Addis Ababa to Robe to Gobele on October 19, hearts and minds full of the dazzling images burned into them during our exploration of the Danakil Depression, and bemoaning more long, arduous hours squeezed into Land Rovers, and careening wildly over rough terrain. I’ve said before that Ethiopia is a country of contrasts. Whereas the Danakil was as dry and crackled as an ancient tomb uncovered, the roads to Robe and Gobele gave us some of the most lush, spectacular, surreal vistas we’d ever seen outside of a screensaver.
Still, nothing could have prepared us for the soul-deep well of emotion that spilled over inside each of us as we rounded the corner where a community of 2,000 people waited, singing “Welcome, welcome, how are you? Welcome, welcome, we love you!” As soon as we stepped out of the Land Rovers, we were absorbed into the crowd, countless hands reaching out to touch us in passing, in awe, and in friendship. It was raw, and it was powerful. We barely had a moment to swallow the raw emotion we felt at seeing the temporary school sign bearing Sharyn’s name before we were swept along with the crowd onto school grounds.
In that moment, all of the hard work and planning we’d invested for months on paper finally became an overwhelmingly beautiful, human reality. From the moment we arrived until the moment the entire community danced us out, we were treated like royalty. This, we thought, is how the kings of old must have felt after returning from war, victorious, to their kingdoms. We, and the imagine1day crew, were ceremoniously dressed in traditional regional garb and paraded individually before a wildly cheering crowd before being presented with regional delicacies.
We heard community elders explain just what the school meant for their village. We heard from a young mother in Grade 4 with a baby strapped to her back, who told us how inspired she was by Sharyn’s story before reading us a poem she hoped would inspire other married women with children to return to school. We toured the original school block (small classrooms made of mud, wood and straw) and the vastly improved new classrooms, faculty office, and latrines. We heard from teachers and students who shared their curriculum and future dreams of becoming doctors, teachers, engineers, and police officers. We watched with pride as Gabe, his brother Mike and Uncle Bryan laid the corner stone. We planted avocado trees to ensure that both minds and bellies will continue to be fed at Sharyn Gobele Primary School, and Bryan humbly asked the elders if we could take a bit of earth from Gobele to bring to Sharyn’s grave in Toronto’s Mount Pleasant Cemetery to complete the circle.
I will never again doubt that one person has the power to change the world. Sharyn inspired those she taught throughout her many years as an educator. She scrimped and saved throughout her career to fund her dream of a namesake school in a part of the world she’d never been to, so her work would continue after her passing. Action is inspiration’s twin. She inspired her family and friends to become her hands and heart in making that dream a reality. She inspired the community of Gobele, the people of which now have an opportunity to make their dreams become a reality.
Now, you have an opportunity to be part of Sharyn’s legacy. So much has been accomplished, but there is still much to be done. The adults of the community have been inspired by their children to educate themselves, and as awareness grows in Gobele, so too will the need for capacity-building. Our 450-student school is almost at capacity. To learn more about our fundraising plans to meet the evolving needs of the school and community we all see as ours now, visit our project page on the imagine1day website.